Qatrina and the Books

Amit Chaudhuri

  • The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
    Faber, 436 pp, £7.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23880 4

What is Pakistani writing? Whatever it might be, it seems to have taken up newsprint lately. Things have been changing quickly and irrevocably over the last seven or eight years: a great symbol of American capitalism was destroyed by two aeroplanes; this was followed, some years later, by a crash in the market no less resounding and sudden; in South Asia, Pakistan (marginalised and nearly abandoned by post-Cold War politics) has been veering between being a frail democracy and becoming a basket case. In no obvious way connected to all this, a handful of Anglophone writers has recently been emerging from that country. Most of them are young, and have written one or two or three books; some, like Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, have successful careers and lives elsewhere. Their work is not part of the long 20th century; they are not a necessary component of a post-colonial efflorescence, as Indian Anglophone writing appeared to be in the 1980s; they are not in any clear way a part of a national literature; they do not bring with them the promise of offering to the reader the ‘sights and sounds’ of what used to be, in Kipling’s time, North-West India. They are a 21st-century phenomenon, appearing at a time when the new supposed fundamentals of this century – free-market dominance, the end of history, the clash of civilisations – suddenly seem frayed and ephemeral. Pakistani writers are interestingly poised: implicated in both the unfolding and the unravelling of our age.

Who, or what, are the antecedents of this present lot: Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Moni Mohsin, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie? The answer – given the multilingualism of South Asia, its histories and enmities, its experiences of modernity and colonisation – has to be a complex one. The riches and idiosyncrasies of Urdu writing must be one antecedent, as an ur-literature which is seldom invoked but which must inform the work. Urdu’s fastidious formalism, the predominance of the short form in its 20th-century fiction, could help explain, for example, Hamid’s choice in The Reluctant Fundamentalist of a form that’s unpopular in Anglophone writing: what Henry James called ‘the dear, the blessed nouvelle’. But the French term reminds us of the currency the novella has had in Europe, and that Hamid has said he was drawn to the genre by way of Camus’s The Fall. This makes things more complicated, not least because we can’t set up an easy opposition between Anglophone diasporic Pakistani writing and Urdu-language literature – between the native and the foreign – because Hamid’s response to Camus must have a deep and long lineage in Urdu cosmopolitanism and its engagement with Europe.[*]

If we were to make a case for a Pakistani aesthetic, in the way that a case for an Indian aesthetic was once made by people like the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, and then reformulated in postcolonial terms after Midnight’s Children, we’d have to use different rhetoric from the sort that has haunted a certain view of the Indian arts for a century. Salman Rushdie has been an iconic figure to at least some of the writers I’ve mentioned (and some have been blurbed by him), but they treat their cultural inheritance in a different way. For one thing, they’re largely, and enigmatically, silent about that inheritance and aesthetic; for another, their work – heterogeneous though it is – doesn’t send out the message, as Rushdie’s did (through markers in the writing that sought to establish continuities with carefully chosen texts like the Ramayana and The Thousand and One Nights), that the impulse towards the epic dominates South Asian storytelling. If anything, the miniaturist’s impulse, with its attendant craftsmanship – which has as valid a lineage (some would argue a richer one) in Indian aesthetics as the epic – determines the texture of many of these new works. But even to begin to make a case based on cultural characteristics would be disingenuous, partly because the works themselves resist such an argument, as does the culture itself, with its own tradition of eclecticism and contradictory borrowings.

Two precursors to these new writers should be mentioned; both are still productive. The older of them is Bapsi Sidhwa, who is roughly a contemporary of Rushdie’s and shares some of his preoccupations: to construct an imaginative (in Rushdie’s case, mock-serious) investigation into the conditions of Partition and Independence; to record the everyday lives of a minority within the new nation (in Rushdie, the secular Muslim bourgeoisie; in Sidhwa, the Parsi community); the urge to find, in English, something like an authentic South Asian vernacular. Although she is Pakistani, Sidhwa could be seen to fit in with the general project of Indian English writing from the 1980s onwards. The other precursor, Aamer Hussein, who moved to London from Pakistan when he was 15, and has lived here for 40 years, is something of an anomaly. An obsessive and dextrous practitioner of the short story, he emerges from the earlier tradition of Urdu cosmopolitanism – he has translated some of these stories – and reinvents it in an English context. It isn’t only that he might occasionally write about Maida Vale and Little Venice, because at least one of the writers he admires, Qurratulain Hyder, wrote about London too. His take on the tradition is informed by his longing to be embedded in a textual culture, a culture of allusions and references such as the Urdu avant-garde worked within, while at the same time having to negotiate a literary environment in which very different sorts of enterprise were underway: the English novel post-Amis, the Indian novel in English, traditions in which narrative supersedes allusion. It’s in accommodating his own incongruity that Hussein has been particularly gifted.

Hussein was formed by a world where the Twin Towers had still not been brought down. The duress that he and his stories seem to be under has other sources: the displacement brought about by migration; the old legacies of class, of the wars with India; the struggle of writing, in what feels like a vacuum; the anxieties and achievements of multiculturalism. Hussein’s fiction presents a fresh but melancholy interpretation of what those achievements are. However, a great deal – including much of what formed Hussein’s cultural context – came crashing down with the Twin Towers. It’s not as if the younger Pakistani writers habitually produce 9/11 novels, in the sense of the American and British sub-genre; it’s as if 9/11 has simply made a certain rehearsal of South Asian identity and history impossible, or even irrelevant.

And so, although Nadeem Aslam’s third novel, The Wasted Vigil, addresses recent and not-so-recent history – the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan; the fall of the Taliban and the ongoing war there – it is, implicitly, about revisiting the past and recording the present without having easy access, any more, to the liberal or novelistic solutions that were available until so recently: realist reportage and analysis, fantasy, the epic, the fairy tale. Aslam has a reputation for lush, ornate writing – it is supposed to go with his brand of ‘magic realism’ – which makes him appear to fit into a familiar and successful tradition, in which style and aesthetics comply with, and display, national characteristics, where ‘national’ is primarily defined by being non-Western. Butterflies and visions inhabit his fiction.

The brief first section of the new novel, in which we encounter the Englishman Marcus and his Afghan wife, Qatrina, seems to confirm this impression: they live in an Afghani village near the Tora Bora mountains, in a house whose ceiling is covered by the books Qatrina once nailed to it (books that had been banned and, as a result, transformed into symbolic objects under the Taliban regime). Lara, a Russian woman staying with Marcus while she searches for her lost brother, Benedikt (who was in the Soviet army), notices at night that the books are ‘each held in place by an iron nail hammered through it. A spike driven through the pages of history, a spike through the pages of love, a spike through the sacred.’ That second sentence appears to place the narrative and its imagery and intent squarely in the line of what Fredric Jameson once called ‘national allegory’. ‘National’, here, doesn’t refer to a country demarcated by borders: it denotes the political and the postcolonial, since if the West is disreputably ‘universal’, the non-West is, or at least was, nicely encompassed by ‘national’, in Benedict Anderson’s sense of the word. The ‘book’ has been a crucial element in the unfolding of that history; after the banning of The Satanic Verses, and the book-burnings and desecrations that followed, at the hands of fundamentalists of all persuasions, including Hindu ones, the book, especially the novel, became a talisman. It became a fetish of humanism, an incarnation of history, not only a receptacle for human wisdom, but a living thing with its own precarious career in the contemporary world. This incarnate quality is hinted at: ‘The books are all up there, the large ones as well as those that are no thicker than the walls of the human heart.’ Later, we learn that Qatrina is dead (she is mentioned in the first chapter in a flashback), and that, at the time she fixed the books to the ceiling, she was mad.

This may or may not be plausible, but it absolves the symbolism from too comfortable a resting place in liberal piety. Qatrina had lost her sanity because of what she’d had to do and suffer under the Taliban: accused of ‘living in sin’ with her husband, she’d had to chop off one of his hands as a punishment to them both. The Taliban are mad, but they represent a utopian idea of order; Qatrina’s madness was a protest against utopia. But it was also a melancholy surrender of herself. The mad attack books; but the urge to fix books, to sacralise them by making them static, or to make them static by rendering them physically or metaphorically immovable, is also mad. It’s an instance of the kind of liberal utopianism about culture that sounded very loudly after the fatwa. Aslam’s novel, and the little fable in it about Qatrina and the books, reminds us that the liberal romanticism that appeared in the 1990s was, in its own way, problematic, one of the reasons being its soaring transcendentalism (it’s logical that books should take refuge on a ceiling).

An example was Rushdie’s letter to Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister of India, protesting at the government’s feckless and opportunistic banning of The Satanic Verses (a ban that, extraordinarily, still stands). Rushdie excoriated Gandhi for forgetting, in effect, that writers were the unacknowledged legislators of the world: this was Rushdie speaking in a voice we hadn’t heard him speak in before, that of the Shelleyan didact; but as rhetoric it remains unconvincing, largely because of its ingenuousness and lack of self-reflexivity. Much water has passed under the bridge since then. Aslam, in this unusually poised and illuminating novel, is rarely ingenuous. He decisively escapes the romanticism – despite, at first glance, seeming to edge close to it in his early pages – that has informed the liberal riposte to fundamentalism; Qatrina’s madness is only one instance of the openness, and the difficulty, of Aslam’s engagement.

Almost everyone in the novel is pursuing a mission of some sort, either a political mission or one that has to do with recovering the missing or the dead. The object of pursuit, in either case, is hallucinatory and tantalising. Among the characters are two Americans: David Town, who, we hear much later, used to work for the CIA, and was also, once, the secret lover of Qatrina and Marcus’s daughter, the murdered Zameen; and James Palantine, who’s in the US army. Then there’s Dunia, an Afghani schoolteacher harried by the remnants of the Taliban (who don’t like women or education), and Casa, a radicalised young Afghan, who could loosely be described, in the official idiom, as a ‘terrorist’. I don’t remember Aslam using the word in the book, though – or not in relation to Casa. This abstention is one of Aslam’s many strategies of defamiliarisation; another is the mark of complicity on almost every character. The plot is hard to summarise, because the novel depends on discursive movement rather than plot; it circles round, as national allegory doesn’t, the ancient epic themes of bereavement and search. All the characters are drawn to and repelled from each other by the varying forces of attraction and suspicion, as in the mixture of doubting curiosity and empathy that Casa and Dunia feel for each other, a curiosity leading, in Casa, to self-loathing. Often, the defamiliarisation takes place at the level of description, as in the following passage, after Marcus has witnessed a truck exploding:

For the next fraction of a second it is as though the truck is in fact the picture of a truck, a photograph printed on flimsy paper, and that the rays of the sun have been concentrated onto it with a magnifying glass. And then the ground falls away from his feet and a light as hard as the sun in a mirror fills his vision. The tar on a part of the road below him has caught fire. Soon they will feed you the entire world. The explosion has created static and a spark leaps from his thumb towards a smoking fragment of metal flying past him. Then he is on the ground. Beside him has landed a child’s wooden leg, in flames, the leather straps burning with a different intensity than the wood, than the bright blood-seeping flesh of the severed thigh that is still attached. A woman in a burka on fire crosses his vision.

Violence and refulgence, the religious and the political, cruelty and vision are compressed in a series of images seen in shattered, out of the ordinary, discontinuous contexts. These glimpses don’t generally take place where the ‘epiphanies’ of modernism occurred, in the midst of the banal and the everyday, in cities and neighbourhoods that are half-familiar to us. Aslam handles his fragments distinctively, even theatrically, whether the image in question is the ‘child’s wooden leg, in flames, the leather straps burning with a different intensity than the wood’ in the passage above, or the hidden stump of Marcus’s arm, or the giant head of the Buddha in Marcus’s disused perfume factory, or the semi-visible paintings of animals on the walls of his house, or the recurrent motif of the pomegranate, or the Soviet soldier’s head (probably the missing Benedikt’s) discovered by Casa towards the end of the novel: ‘that parchment-like face pasted onto the skull, the lips pulled back to reveal blackened teeth’.

These are not instances of the particular or the concrete as these things would have been understood by Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams; they have an occluded quality, or the opacity of calligraphy or inscription (‘that parchment-like face’). Civilisation, history and culture – the Buddha’s head; Benedikt’s severed head – are breakable, degradable and literally (as with the pomegranate) or figuratively (as with television images of war) consumable: we have an appetite, for civilisation and for its destruction. Aslam’s extraordinary, complex style attempts to encompass these oscillations: it makes his language at once voluptuous and eloquent and scathing and melancholy. This language occasionally confuses his readers, critics and even his admirers. It’s what made James Buchan describe the novel’s terrain, in the Guardian, as ‘a Persian miniature under some terrible curse’; and provoked Adam Mars-Jones, in the opening sentence of his admiring review in the Observer, to tackle this question: ‘There isn’t enough beauty in the world, but isn’t it true that a work of art can be too beautiful?’ It’s also what causes the New York Times reviewer, Lorraine Adams, to caution Aslam about his tendency towards ‘operatic effusion’, and to quote admonishingly, among other passages and sentences, this discomfiting, almost exhibitionistic, convergence of culture, wounding, appetite and life: ‘The pomegranate was on a table close to the fireplace. She slit it open now. The outer layer of scarlet seeds had been warmed by the flames. The temperature of menstrual blood, of semen just emerged from a man’s body.’

In a recent issue of the Indian newspaper Mint, Salil Tripathi, speaking of the new Pakistani writing in English, offers a thesis for what is still a small, though undeniable, flowering: ‘With the state withdrawing from exercising even a semblance of authority, several authors of Pakistani origin or heritage have seized that space, writing seminal works that provide clarity in our absurd times. Maybe exceptional strife spurs imagination – think of the Samizdat writers during the Cold War – although responding to the crisis is not the overt intention of any of Pakistan’s fine novelists.’ This may well be true, but it is also contentious. It’s a version of the old adage about suffering making for good art, an adage whose political, rather than metaphysical, implications were embraced enthusiastically in Western, especially Anglophone, Europe in the 1980s, in relation to the poetry that was emerging from the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The poetry, for instance, of Holub, Milosz and Brodsky led poets born to happier countries to register their envy, almost, of the former poets’ histories. The 1980s also represent the dawning of the era we live in now, of deregulated markets, a framework which, in no small way, makes these particular Pakistani writers available to us, and which surely contributes to the absurdity of the ‘absurd times’ Tripathi says we live in.

Rather than a tragic but noble history of oppression, I would say that it’s the burden of a conflicted and ambiguous relationship to national history that marks the imaginative world of the Pakistani bourgeoisie from which these writers have emerged. It’s difficult to say if – outside its growing pan-Islamism in the last four decades – there ever was a national myth of Pakistan which supplied metaphors for its writing, as was the case for America and, just as strongly, and sometimes perniciously, for India. In India, the national myth developed in two phases: the first made a diffuse, amorphous, all-embracing version of Hinduism, as well as its later encounter with a tolerant Islam, a source for its secular humanism, where ‘India’ became a shorthand for a certain way of understanding the past and civilisation. The second phase is the postmodern one, where ‘India’ becomes a means of appropriating and expressing some of the fundamental energies of globalisation, to do with enterprise, aggression, prolixity and interconnectedness. ‘Hindutva’, the BJP’s special spin on Hinduism, was consolidated in this second phase, and a particular kind of national pride was formulated at the same time, summed up in the BJP slogan ‘Garv se kaho ham Hindu hain’ (‘Say proudly: “I’m a Hindu”’) and in a legend that appeared on the backs of buses, ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ (‘My India Is Great’), which led, later, to the BJP’s disastrous election slogan for a free-market Hindu nationalism in 2004, ‘India Shining’. All this put paid to the Nehruvian phase (itself a continuation of 19th-century humanism) of an austere, patrician, liberal, left-leaning nationalism, in which a multilingual, secular middle class whose status was not necessarily connected to inherited property and lineage came to exercise moral and intellectual power.

The one great difference between independent India and independent Pakistan is that Pakistan never had anything like a Nehruvian phase. What it had, besides the domination of the army and fitful, unconvinced attempts at democracy, was a decade – 1978-88 – under General Zia-ul-Haq (a decade that felt much longer than it was) when a military dictator shored up his regime in the name of Islam. This was a time when most of the arts, especially the classical arts, such as music and dance, which had evolved in the subcontinent through the interpellation of Hindu and Muslim sources, went underground, were silenced or were purged of Hindu content (some of that content was the contribution of Muslim emperor-composers such as Wajid Ali Shah). It was in this period, too, that Nadeem Aslam’s father, a Marxist, left Pakistan for Huddersfield. And it was in the same decade that India moved into the second, triumphal phase of its nationalism: the phase of Hindutva; of the professionalised diaspora in Silicon Valley and New Jersey; of the politics of postcolonialism in academic departments. All these developments made inevitable, in one way or another, India’s journey towards the free market that Nehruvian socialism had viewed warily. The free market, fortuitously, gave to the ‘idea of India’ a new, contemporary, symbolic currency, just at the moment when its old humanistic weight began to become anachronistic. Zia’s mixture of militarism and Islam made Pakistan an important player in the final years of the Cold War, but also isolated it; and it alienated Pakistan’s intelligentsia and its artistic fraternity from their own heritage, and made impossible the transformation of Pakistani nationalism – unlike the Indian brand – into a commodity that would have a market everywhere.

In this context, the example of music is instructive. After independence, the Indian state became a patron of Indian classical music, and encouraged many maestros who had been born in what became Pakistan to settle in India to practise their art ‘freely’. The Pakistani state was always assumed to be stepmotherly about classical music, which had Hindu ancestry, because of Islam’s supposedly puritan disdain for music’s sensuous qualities (a belief refuted by those who have studied Muhammad’s life closely). This ambivalence deepened into hostility under Zia; Indian classical music, meanwhile, established itself as a pan-Indian art form (some time before Bollywood and the Indian novel in English assumed that mantle) in the 1960s and 1970s and, in a significant sense, became an embodiment of the nation. By the 1990s, however, it had ossified into a series of gestures and genuflections, and the sitar, sarod and the singer – even the kurta he wore – had become part of a cult of nationality rather than of a persuasive and self-renewing practice. Raza Karim, a Pakistani musicologist and musician, was surely right to point out that, although the suppression of North Indian classical music in Pakistan was tragic, its appropriation by the state, by an idea of the nation, had equally distressing consequences for Indian creativity. He’d noticed the emptiness that enters an art form once it becomes an adjunct to a national project. The Indian novel in English has constantly run the same risk.

I had a Pakistani friend when I was at Oxford, with whom I was having an unpredictable but absorbing relationship. She put up a large sticker on the wall of my room one day, meaning to educate and embarrass me; it read: i love pakistan. It was a secular message, but there was no real market for it; Pakistan had floundered and blundered when it came to becoming part of the feel-good narrative that nationalism and the free market are both adept at creating. America had perfected it once; and India – with its democracy, its growth rate, its cavorting film industry, its fragrant cuisine, its IT experts, its call centres servicing remote American towns, its novels on the Booker Prize shortlist – was demonstrating, again, the possibilities of a celebratory nationalism. The problem is that such a nationalism, when it becomes a way of experiencing the world – in the arts, in the institutions that are involved in intellectual and critical life – tends to become immune to self-doubt and guilt and shame. The Pakistani Urdu-language writer Fahmida Riaz shrewdly portrays its proponents, with their curious mixture of ingenuousness and complicity, in ‘Some Misaddressed Letters’, an autobiographical short story (it appears in Aamer Hussein’s 1999 anthology, Hoops of Fire) in which the protagonist, in exile from her homeland, finds herself addressing a group of attentive Indian intellectuals in Delhi:

Amina wrote a number of passionate poems, exposing the gaping flaws in a democratic system that still allowed for horrifying poverty. She read them to a select gathering of Indian writers. The Indian intelligentsia, which has rarely known poverty since the last half-century, which is free to choose between the right and the left, between east and west, or north and south, is always thrilled by chastisement. They smiled warmly at her.

One of them remarked: ‘It is a very sincere attempt.’

  These words at once revealed to Amina that she had just posted another misaddressed letter.

Riaz, in this passage, describes the predicament of the Pakistani writer, as well as the liberties and opportunities that predicament gives her; she suggests, too, that the freedoms available to the Indian writer bring with them paradoxical forms of imprisonment. The dichotomy may be too neat always to hold true, but it reminds us that what is at stake here is more than just one country’s suffering and another’s success. The contexts at work have to do with national shame and writing as a form of self-awareness (‘misaddressed letters’), on the one hand, and a curious mixture of an upbeat openness and a certain suspension of critical faculties, on the other: a curious kind of self-absorption. Riaz’s story is an example of fiction skirting, and engaging with, the boundaries of criticism. Aslam’s considerable novel emerges from a related history and probably from some of the same pressures: it too describes the journey from the sensuous to the critical, from its lavish propensity for the poetic image to its exploratory, persistent, questioning intelligence.

[*] Amit Chaudhuri reviewed The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the LRB of 4 October 2007.